From Points West magazine
Originally published in Fall 2005
By Charles R. Preston, PhD, Chief Curator, Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Founding Curator, Draper Natural History Museum
“There’s one…no two…wait, there are five of them!” It was about 6:30 a.m. near the turnoff to the Slough Creek campground in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. An early June drizzle had engulfed us, but nobody complained. We’d come to see Yellowstone wildlife, and the gray wolf was at the top of our must-see list.
Our attention was focused on a den site next to a rocky outcrop on a steep, grassy slope about a thousand meters in front of us. We knew the Slough Creek Pack had produced four litters this spring—fourteen individuals—in four separate dens on this hillside. Four simultaneous litters within a pack are unprecedented for Yellowstone wolves, and I’ve not been able to find it recorded before anywhere.
We’d been scanning the hillside for a few minutes when one of our crew announced excitedly that five pups had emerged from behind the rock outcrop and were exploring the surrounding sagebrush flat. We took turns getting a close-up view of the pups through our powerful spotting scopes, and saw that two of the pups were black, and three were grayish-brown. As they explored the area, a large, silver-gray adult watched them carefully from the top of the rocky outcrop above them.
This was the second day of our journey through the Greater Yellowstone Area [in spring 2005], co-hosted by the Buffalo Bill [Center of the West]’s Draper Natural History Museum and Off The Beaten Path, LLC. Betsy Robinson, a wildlife biologist representing Off The Beaten Path, and I led the tour. Participants hailed from across the country. Each was an experienced hunter and/or outdoorsman in his own right, and most had visited Yellowstone at least once before. They were attracted by the opportunity to visit the region at a time when Yellowstone wildlife are most active and tourist numbers are relatively low, and they were depending on us to make the most of the wildlife-watching opportunities.
The adventure began with a brief orientation, including a tour of the Draper Greater Yellowstone Adventure exhibits. The next day we traveled through the beautiful North Fork corridor and Shoshone National Forest to enter the Park at the East Gate. We explored the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Norris Geyser Basin, and Mammoth Hot Springs before arriving in Cooke City, Montana, for the night. We spent the next two days exploring Lamar Valley, probably the best place in North America to observe wild gray wolves.
On that second day, while most of us were watching the wolf pups wander and play around the Slough Creek den site, Betsy Robinson spotted a bear on the ridge behind us. At first, we thought it was a grizzly bear, but when it turned broadside to us, we could see it was an unusually marked, blonde, black bear. From that same vantage point, we saw four grizzly bears that morning, including a sow and two cubs!
As is usual in spring, Yellowstone wildlife was very visible. We saw thousands of bison, many with their little, red calves in tow, hundreds of elk, dozens of mule deer and pronghorn, two cow moose with newborn calves, a young bull moose in velvet, several bighorn sheep ewes with newborn lambs (it is mind-boggling to watch one of these hours-old lambs scramble up a rocky slope), at least a dozen wolves, five grizzly bears, seven black bears, several coyotes, nesting great horned owls, ospreys, and a peregrine falcon with chicks. We saw a golden eagle and witnessed a spectacular series of acrobatic maneuvers by a group of four red-tailed hawks.
One of our participants summed up his experience this way: “As you know, I’ve had several trips into Yellowstone and Lamar Valley, but your trip was by far the most memorable. I still marvel at the number and variety of species of young animals we were able to observe. What a treat!” It’s often through the eyes of our trip participants and museum visitors that we are reminded of what an exceptional gift we have in this Yellowstone Corner of the world.